WASHINGTON – Janet B. Wood remembers when black smoke, red-orange dust and silver flakes spewed out of the sprawling Sparrows Point Bethlehem Steel complex near her Dundalk home.
The air was “absolutely horrible” back in the 1970s, she said, when cars, laundry, furniture and swimming pools were covered by the pollution from the plant.
“Bethlehem Steel was huge. Everyone worked there,” said Doris Kuhar, Wood’s friend and fellow activist. “We lived with the clouds of dust and kish. But you know, they were the provider.”
Today, the black clouds and the old coal furnaces that produced them are gone, as is the red-orange iron ore dust. The silvery flakes — little bits of graphite known as “kish” — fall far less frequently.
It is a testament to years of activism and legal battles by people like Wood and Kuhar, combined with an aggressive focus by state regulators on smokestack emissions and a new environmental sensitivity by the giant steelmaker.
“Back in the 1970s and 1980s is where the push happened to reduce pollutants. We started out attacking particulate matter, which was the visible smokestack emissions and other things,” said Angelo Bianca, deputy director of the Maryland Department of the Environment’s Air and Radiation Management Administration.
Joe Schindler, the director of environmental compliance for Bethlehem Steel, said the company has a keen sense now of the “environmental relationships” between it and the community.
“I don’t care what the industry is. . . there are environmental relationships,” Schindler said.
But he also said that economics compels the company to keep emissions low.
“If you manufacture it (a product) efficiently, you are in better shape. If you waste energy, then you have a larger cost per unit, so the economics is what really drive our effort to reduce emissions,” Schindler said.
It wasn’t always that way.
Kuhar, whose parents and grandparents lived in Sparrows Point as far back as the 1920s, remembers the red-orange dust cloud that hung over the place. But back in those days, she said, no one talked about health hazards associated with the pollution.
“There was a time when there was a red cloud that just hung over everything (in) Sparrows Point,” Kuhar recalled. “It was a company town. It was a wonderful town. It had everything, stores, theaters.
“They kept it clean. Sycamore trees lined the streets. But there was this red cloud and no one said anything about it,” Kuhar said.
There were health problems she and many others attributed to the severe air and water pollution from all the industrial activity in the area.
“We all knew there were a lot of cancer deaths,” Kuhar said. “My father died of lung cancer in 1960 but he never smoked. And my grandfather died of pancreatic cancer in 1948.”
Kuhar’s husband recently retired after 41 years at the plant, and Wood’s husband worked there for 31 years, from 1947 until his death in 1984.
Both men worked at Bethlehem Steel during its 1950s heyday when the Sparrows Point division employed as many as 29,000 people in the steel mill and as many as 4,000 in the shipyards. Sparrows Point produced 8 million tons of steel annually then.
Wood and Kuhar, who moved to their homes near the Back River in Dundalk in 1978, said it was not the steel plant but the presence of the old Norris Farm landfill and chemical processing plant that got them involved in local environmental issues.
“When I first moved to Dundalk. . . I was unaware there was a landfill relatively close by,” Wood said. “I kept hearing strange noises and smelling these strange odors. My youngest daughter started getting headaches.”
Working through the Wells McComas Citizens Improvement Association, Wood and Kuhar got the courts and the legislature involved in the Norris Farm fight. In 1981, Browning-Ferris Industries shut the site down.
“That was a long, hard battle. Everyone in Dundalk fought it, but it ended up seven of us went to court all the time,” she recalled. “We are the only community group ever to close down a big company.”
Motivated by this victory, the citizens association took on Bethlehem Steel. With the help of Michael Millemann, a law professor at the University of Maryland School of Law in Baltimore, they fought the company from about 1978 to about 1993.
Wood believes they forced Bethlehem Steel to clean up its act and change its whole attitude about being environmentally responsible corporate citizens.
“They’ve cleaned up their act, and they are very responsive now when I call. I’ll make a call and they are back to me within minutes,” she said.
“I haven’t seen the black smoke or the red clouds in a long time. They have come a long way,” Kuhar said. “They most definitely have incorporated a new mindset.”
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